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D.C. United listless in NYCFC defeat

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United were again largely toothless without Luciano Acosta

It was not much of a surprise an hour before kickoff on Sunday, with D.C. United visiting New York City FC, that Luciano Acosta was once again missing from the gameday squad. Head coach Ben Olsen had said throughout the week the playmaker was day-to-day with an ankle injury, and as of Tuesday Acosta had not returned to the practice field.

So maybe it wasn’t much of a surprise that United again went scoreless on Sunday, making it two league games without a goal to start the season. But after a solid defensive performance in Week 1 against Sporting Kansas City, United spent too much time looking lost at Yankee Stadium, ending up with a 4-0 defeat to NYCFC.

Having conceded three goals before the break, there was little hope in the second half that United would get anything from the game. Instead of scoring one to give themselves a glimmer of hope, they instead conceded a second goal to David Villa.

“We get caught in transition, and [we’re] not good enough with the ball,” Olsen said of his team after the game. “One or two situations, where you’re late or on the wrong side of a player, against this quality of an attack, forget about it. You’re going to eat it.”

“Do I think they are 4-0 better than us? No,” Olsen added. “They were today. The scoreline does not lie.”

After an early shot from left back Taylor Kemp fizzed over the goal, it was virtually all New York City the rest of the first half. Rodney Wallace, the former United SuperDraft pick, scored the first, before Villa and Maxi Moralez made it three before the end of the first half.

Once the wheels started wobbling for United, it didn’t take much for them to come off in the first half.

“I thought they were much more dynamic in the attacking third. Every time the ball turned over, you had two, three guys making real hard runs that put us under pressure,” said Olsen. “We win the ball, and we don’t have enough movement on the offensive end. And again, on the defensive end, we have to be better in transition.”

United did at times look better offensively against City than they did in last week’s 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City. Even without the services of Acosta, United were able to create opportunities, even if they failed to find the goals to go along with them.

Shortly after Wallace’s opener, Lloyd Sam had an equalizer controversially ruled out due to an offside call that replays deemed dubious. And then there was an decent 15 minute push by United to start the second half. Patrick Nyarko came close on several occasions to finding the first goal of the season for the Black-and-Red, but there was simply no good news coming for DCU.

“We tried to battle back in the second half, there was a good push for us. I was trying to find myself in good spaces, just get on the ball, and keep it for us,” said United debutant Ian Harkes after the game. “So we could get some good momentum, there were some good moments.”

Olsen agreed that, despite the lack of scoring prowess in United’s attack, his team showed signs of improvement on the attacking end over last week’s draw.

“I think that was better, but, still not scoring. The final product has to get better,” said Olsen. “We had plenty of opportunities to score today, and that wasn’t the case [last week]. But as far as building into the attack, it was a step forward.”

Defensively, it was another story. A week after keeping Dom Dwyer and company quiet for most of the 90 minutes against Sporting, United had no such luck with Villa on Sunday. Time after time, City sent waves of attack at United. And too many times, United weren’t in a connected, cohesive defensive shape.

It resulted in the Black-and-Red suffering their worst loss in league play since losing 5-0 at Columbus in the 2015 regular season finale.

“We just weren’t sharp as a team. We’d work so hard defensively to get the ball, and we weren’t good with the ball in certain spots,” defender Sean Franklin told B&RU after the game. “They turned us over in our own half, and they were able to capitalize on their chances.”

And United still have to come up with a solution for Acosta. After using Julian Buescher last week as their most attacking midfielder, this week Olsen elected to give Harkes his debut from the start in a similar role. The homegrown player had a decent game, all things considered. But it was still clear that United is missing something offensively without Acosta’s footwork, flair, and creativity.

After the game, Olsen wouldn’t commit to say Acosta would play next week against Columbus Crew SC, but Olsen did say that he expected that the playmaker would be back in practice.

“We all know he’s a real difference maker in this team. We don’t have him. So that means other guys have to take some responsibility,” Olsen said of Acosta. “That’s wanting the ball. Making a little bit more movement off the ball. All these little things that you can do to help our group.”

And for Harkes, even though the result might not have gone the way he had hoped, he was still thrilled to have been able to make his professional debut.

“It’s a tough one when you look at it at the end of the day. But I was happy to step on the field for the first time for D.C,” said Harkes. “There’s a lot of growing to do, and a lot of learning, so I’m excited for that throughout the season.”